OXFORD — Neighborly relations between residents and church officials got off to a contentious start at a Planning Board meeting Thursday, after locals vehemently opposed a proposed group home for recovering addicts.

Board members were unable to reach a decision on CityReach Oxford Hills’ proposal, with both sides disagreeing over whether the town zoning ordinance allows the Christian-based group to begin a long-term faith-based recovery program. 

Neighbors were less uncertain, fearful the proposal meant drug addicts wandering the streets, robberies and declining home values. 

“We’ve worked our butts off,” neighbor Deborah Wiles said. “We came a long way, did a lot to our house, and I don’t want pornographic addicts, alcoholics or drug addicts.”

Patricia Larrivee said she supported the church, but didn’t think it was qualified to deal with what she saw as a medical issue. 

“I don’t want this in my backyard. We’re not Bangor. We’re not a city. We’re Oxford,” Larrivee said. 

CityReach Oxford Hills, the group behind the proposal, wants to open a recovery home with the aim of helping men overcome addiction, learn a trade, find a job and rejoin the community. 

Pastor Robert Bledsoe, the CityReach Regional director for New England, said the program was similar to a monastery, where drugs, alcohol and smoking are prohibited.

Though candidates are screened for compatibility, Bledsoe said the home is different than a drug rehabilitation center because the home does not administer medication. Rather than treating addicts medically, recovery is faith-based.

“We don’t believe in drugging people on medications and dumbing them down, but dealing with the issues in their life so they become a productive member of society,” Bledsoe said.   

Admitted “disciples” will be paired with a professional laborer and begin an apprenticeship in the hopes it will become a job once the program has ended. During the program, the men will live, eat, do Bible studies and seek emotional instruction inside the church, he said.

Bledsoe, who lives in Bangor, said the program changed his life after he found himself homeless and addicted to heroin. He said the program’s success rate is about 85 percent.

Crucial to whether the plan will go through is the board’s interpretation of zoning laws.

Located at 298 Coldwater Brook Road, the former church building is zoned in a residential area where churches are allowed but not drug addiction treatment facilities. A town  ordinance defines such facilities as those “for outpatient detoxification and treatment of narcotic-dependent persons which administers or dispenses drugs used to alleviate adverse physiological or psychological effects incident to withdrawal from continuous or sustained drug use.” 

Bledsoe said they do not administer or dispense drugs and are federally recognized as a church.

When several board members suggested they still viewed the center as a rehabilitation center and leaned toward rejecting it, Bledsoe commented that state and federal laws protect from discrimination, and if a rejection of the program was perceived as such, it could draw publicity the town doesn’t want. 

“That sounds like a threat,” Larrivee retorted. 

A few board members said they were not convinced, but deferred the decision for review by the town’s attorney and said they’ll require a letter of recommendation from the half dozen or so other communities in the state where there are centers.

Meetings between the sides are on hold pending that opinion. 

The Planning Board authorized the organization to hold worship services until it’s decided whether it will allow the recovery program.

When neighbors protested that the house was too close to schools and children, Chairman Walt Mosher banged his fist on the table to restore order.

Toward the end of the meeting Wiles suggested the group would not pay taxes and Bledsoe responded that the comment was untrue and ignorant.

Reacting angrily, Wiles shouted, “You’re the ignorant one.”

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